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9 Questions with Ryan Reed, NASCAR Driver with Diabetes
Ryan Reed began racing cars when he was four years old. “That was when my dad bought me a go-kart,” he told us. “My mom wasn’t too thrilled about it, but I had such a passion for racing at such an early age and it was very evident how much I loved it. I raced go-karts until I was in my early teens, then miniature stock cars in my mid teens and full-size stock cars when I was 15-16. From there, the transition happened pretty fast into the bigger car stuff.”
It was shortly after that when Ryan’s racing career nearly came to a crashing halt before it even started. At the age of 17, he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.
We spoke with Ryan about what it’s like to compete professionally with diabetes, his race preparation and training techniques, and how WHOOP helps him manage his disease and be a better athlete.
How were you were first diagnosed?
“In 2011, I was nearing the end of high school and getting ready to move from California to North Carolina, which is kind of the hub for NASCAR. I was really excited about the move. I was going to drive for one of the sport’s premier names in his developmental program.
The winter before, I’d started getting pretty sick. I just remember throughout the offseason (roughly November through March) I felt really sick. I was losing a lot of weight, and was dehydrated and fatigued all the time. After I had those symptoms for a couple months, I went to the doctor and he diagnosed me with Type 1 diabetes. He actually told me that I would never race again. Hearing that was by far the most traumatic part of the whole thing for me.”
Where did you go from there?
“I didn’t really know where to go or what to do. I didn’t know anything about diabetes or anyone who had it, and I didn’t know of any pro athletes or racecar drivers who had it.
At first, I just started doing some research and learning how to manage it, what that would mean for me personally, not professionally. I spent a month or so just kind of learning how to get through the days. I’d hated needles my whole life, so taking shots twice a day and all that stuff was definitely a huge transition for me.
Not long after that, I began doing research on professional athletes with diabetes. I read all these unbelievable and inspiring stories about people doing incredible things. A lot of the athletes worked with one particular endocrinologist, a diabetes specialist in southern California, right near where I grew up. We reached out to her many times, she had an extremely long waiting list. Eventually, she agreed to see me.
My first doctor’s visit with her was immediately the transformation I needed. In the first five minutes, she promised me that after working together I’d be back in a racecar. That was one of the single most important moments of my life. She’s still my doctor today.”
As a driver, what do you have to do differently because you have diabetes?
“One of the keys right off the bat is being able to know what my blood sugar is, that’s kind of the cornerstone of diabetes management. I have a wireless continuous glucose monitor in my car. It’s a sensor that goes inside my stomach through a little hair wire underneath my skin. It communicates with a receiver on my dashboard that looks kind of like a cell phone. I can see what my blood sugar is, what it’s been doing over the last few hours, where it’s trending, etc. From there, I can make decisions on what I need to do.
If it’s too high and going higher, I have a bull’s eye on the left leg of my fire suit to indicate where a crew member can give me an insulin injection during a pit stop. I may radio my team and say ‘Hey guys, I’m coming in for tires, fuel, and my blood sugar is too high so I need insulin too.’ That’s something we practice and get really comfortable doing. Fortunately, it’s more of a safety net. I work really hard to start the race where I need to be as far as my blood sugar goes so I don’t have to rely on that.
On the other hand, if my blood sugar is too low, I have a drink in the car with me. It’s basically just a sports drink that we add some other things to to increase the glucose content.”
When did you discover WHOOP, and what did it do for you?
“I’ve got an amazing partnership with Lilly Diabetes, this is our fifth year together. They’re a great company that does wonderful things for people with diabetes. I went up to Boston last year and one of my friends who works for Lilly and a bunch of his colleagues were using WHOOP. They started telling me about it and I was really excited to try it. With the nutrition and training side of things becoming extremely important for me ever since I was diagnosed, I was really eager to see all the information WHOOP could give me.
Within the first two weeks, WHOOP got me to change my training regimen and my race-day approach, it benefited my professional life almost immediately. Racing is such a physically demanding sport, much more than people think. The mental aspect of it is unbelievably strenuous. You’re in the car for three hours at 120, 130, sometimes even 140-degree temperatures, it’s so easy to get physically and mentally fatigued. When I’m rested and recovered heading into a race, I’m just so much sharper inside the car.
What WHOOP did for my diabetes management was incredible as well. I quickly figured out that when I get the right amount of sleep and am properly recovered, I see amazing effects in my blood sugar the next day.
For people with diabetes, a consistent diet, paired with eating at the right times and taking the proper amount of insulin at those times, is crucial. When I’m well rested, my hunger cravings are so much more controlled and I do much less snacking, which makes it a lot easier for me to plan my meals and eat at a controlled schedule.”
How did WHOOP change your training habits?
“I’m always trying to stay on the cutting edge with my training and be the best I can be inside the racecar. I’ve done everything from CrossFit, to kickboxing, to triathlon training–you name it, I’ve tried it. I’ve learned that a mix of endurance-based training (a lot of cycling and running) and strength training (more of a standard weightlifting routine) works well for me. WHOOP helps me plan my workouts accordingly.
When I’m not recovered, I do something with a lower base heart rate, maybe a weightlifting workout that’s not too taxing and won’t burn me out mentally. When my HRV is lower than I want it to be I don’t push myself like I would on hard workout days, I make it a recovery day instead of a high-strain day.
The days that I am well recovered I really attack. I go for 30 to 40-mile bike rides, and maybe mix in weightlifting as well. Since I began using WHOOP, I’ve noticed that I never feel burned out. I’m always motivated, always excited to get to the gym. I’m not pushing myself too hard and dreading workouts like I used to sometimes.”
And what about your sleeping habits?
“They’ve changed dramatically. I try to get in bed earlier now, I know that’s simple, but it really helps me. I also put my phone away now before I get in bed.
One of the things I love about WHOOP is the immediate feedback. If you try something new, you’ll know right away if it’s a positive result. For example, I used to always drink a Diet Coke with dinner. I quit doing that to see if the little bit of caffeine had an effect. I noticed instantly that I had tremendously better sleep. Now it’s no caffeine after 4 pm for me, and it makes a huge difference.”
How do you prepare for races each week?
“As the summer goes on, it gets increasingly more difficult inside the racecar. Heat exhaustion is for sure the primary thing that all drivers face. The best thing I can do to combat that is to build my endurance, which for me means a lot of cycling. That’s what helps me feel the freshest inside the car.
Mondays I make sure to get physical therapy, or do a stretching and rollout routine that morning. Then I like to start the week off with a solid one or two-hour cycling session. I also try to get a lift in that evening after dinner. Tuesdays I may start tapering a little, maybe go for a short 20-30 minute run, mixed in with a long lifting workout to really tear up some muscle but still have a few days to recover before I race.
Wednesdays I usually do a moderate cycle ride and don’t get the heart rate too high. Thursdays are often a travel day, I may do a quick run or if I can get to a gym, a light workout. Fridays are normally a practice day in the car, so I don’t usually work out.
Then Saturday is race day, where I’m all about stretching and making sure to get as loose as I can before I get in the car. Obviously I do my best to get plenty of sleep the night before and have a good recovery.”
What do you do to recover after the race?
“That’s something I play around a lot with, there are so many options nowadays. I go to a physical therapist who works on me quite a bit, she works with my race team and is very familiar with what drivers go through. On my own I do a mixed bag of things, I use leg compression technology, salt baths, and I try to do the cryo chamber somewhat regularly. Ice baths and the cryo chamber I think are great, both for injury prevention, but also for chronic tightness and little nagging things.”
Finally, what are your career goals going forward?
“As a racecar driver, your immediate goal is to contend for a win every weekend. I race in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, which is one level below the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. That’s my goal, to race on Sundays in the Cup Series against the best in the world. I’m working really hard to get there.
Another huge goal of mine is to continue to raise awareness about diabetes and encourage people to live healthy lifestyles. But most importantly, I want to send the message not to ever give up on your dreams because of a disease you didn’t choose. There are so many kids who get diagnosed with diabetes and are given information that points them to just focusing on living and managing it. That’s not the case, that’s not what life’s about.”